One of My Favorite Traditional Korean Stories: “Kija’s Pottery Hats”

A traditional hat that Korean men wear looks almost like a black top hat like President Lincoln used to wear, but the brim is very broad, and often times, they have strings of beads hanging down the sides.  The first time I saw one of these hats, it didn’t have beads, and it just didn’t look like it fit in the Orient somehow.  However, I have learned that they have been in Korea for a long, long time.  I am always reading Korean stories and interested in their traditions just as I do every time I live in a foreign country.  There is a traditional story about how they got the black hats in on of my favorite books about Korea: “Tales of a Korean Grandmother” by Francis Carpenter.  The name of the story is “Kija’s Pottery Hats.”

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The story goes that there was a time in Korea that the streets were not safe.  The women weren’t allowed to walk in the streets alone for the most part.  The only time they could come into the streets was in a covered carriage where no one knew who was in the carriage or in Seoul, they would sound a bell, and the women could go out of the house to go shopping, and the men weren’t allowed in the streets until the bell sounded again. When the bell sounded again, the women had to be back in their houses.  The reason women couldn’t go into the streets when men were in the streets was because the men spent their time fighting.  The streets were very unsafe. The men had long hair and wore small buns on the top of their heads back then, and they caught each other by the bun and threw each other onto the ground. They wrestled and threw one another all over the place. They also used clubs and hit one another over the head.

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The emperor was very unhappy with what they were doing.  He wanted to make Korea a safer place.  He decided that every man had to wear a ceramic pot on his head. If they wore a ceramic pot on their heads, then when they fought, the pot would break, and he would know who was fighting, and he could punish them.  He had big wooden paddles, and he actually spanked them if they fought.  They had to lie on a wooden bench on their stomachs and then be spanked with a wooden paddle. If you look back at my blog about the traditional village over in Suwon, there is a picture of someone spanking someone with one of the wooden paddles on a wooden bench.  I have seen these wooden benches with paddles in more than one place here. The ceramic hats were expensive too, so if they broke one, they had to pay an exorbitant price to replace it. The emperor’s plan worked very well, and the fighting in the streets stopped.

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They used something that was similar to a wooden boat paddle to spank the people who broke the law. They made them law face down on a wooden bench, and then spanked them.


However, there was another problem.  He saw men in the courts whispering to one another. He was afraid they were banding together against him.  To prevent them from whispering, he decided to add a wide brim to the pots on their heads so they couldn’t stand close enough together to whisper.  Adding a brim to the pottery hats worked too.

This guy is wearing one of the hats. Some of the hats are smaller on the top.

Years passed, and the men had stopped fighting and stopped whispering against the emperor.  However, they continued wearing the hats, and they felt burdened by the heavy hats, but there was a law that they had to wear them.  The hat makers came up with the idea of putting stray in the clay when they made the hats to make them lighter.  A little later, they started using horse hair instead of straw, and eventually left off the clay forgetting why they even had to wear the hats to begin with.  Eventually, the reason to wear the hats became to protect their buns.  The hats became extremely light weight, and the top of the hat, the part that was not the brim, became smaller and smaller to the point that it only covered the bun. Wearing the bun was the sign of being a man. When the boys were growing up, they wore a long braided pigtail down their back, and the boys all looked forward to the ceremony of taking the braid out and turning it into a bun show that they were a man. However, with western style clothing, the men began cutting their hair like the men in the west.

This guy is wearing one of these hats with the top part really small.

Eventually, they made it legal for the men not to wear the hats, and the men continued to wear them until recent times when they adopted western style clothing. They then became part of the traditional clothing the Korean men wear. They had forgotten the original reason for the law, the streets were safe, and there were no more spies whispering in the emperor’s court.  Now a days, there is no emperor, but a president.  I really don’t know if the story is true or not, but i was very entertained when I read it.  It isn’t the only fun story I have read like this, so perhaps, I will eventually share more of the stories with you.


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